Church Weekend Away
The Church: Does God Really Care About Us?
Talk 3: On the Value of the Church to God
We've seen this weekend that the Church is gathered by God to listen to God and obey God. And we've seen that the Church exists to bring in God's eternal plans a restored humanity in a renewed creation and all this for God's glory, to display his wisdom, his grace and his power. You could say we've been learning that church isn't so much about us, as it is all about God. God is at work in the world in and through the church for his own glory. That's as it should be, it's his glory that has been challenged by our sin, his glory that needs to be seen so he can be rightly worshipped and honoured as he deserves.
But it can seem to us in all this talk about God and his glory, that we don't really matter to God, we're just pawns in his global glory hunt.
But nothing could be further from the truth. God glories in his other person centeredness –his love. Other person centred love is at the heart of God's relationships within the trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And other person centred love is at the heart of God's relationship with us, his church. So this session we're going to look at three ways that Ephesians reveals God's delight in, God's Love for and God's care for his church.
Three main images in for the church in Ephesians are a body, a building and a bride (there are others, but these are the main ones). Each of these images reflects the value and worth of the Church to God – as a body it's head, as a defining statement building to it's builders, as a bride to her bridegroom, so we are immensely valuable to God who loves and cares for us.
For no particular reason we'll start with the body.
Eph 1.22-23 'And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in everyway.'
Two stunning things in this short passage. First all things are put under Jesus – all of creation belongs to him, he is the head of everything. But second, perhaps more surprising, is the purpose of this – all things are put under him for his body, the church!
Remember the Church is the heavenly church, the eternal, universal church, but it includes each individual congregation too. Important to notice the group nature of this – Paul could have easily have said 'for the sake of his people' or 'for the sake of the redeemed' etc., which leaves open the question of whether individuals or a group is in view. But when he chooses 'for the church' there is no question – this is a corporate thing, the church as a whole, as a community, as a group is on view. We are no longer individuals who live and die to God for ourselves; rather, as Paul says in 1 Cor 12, if the church is a body, then we are all interdependent - if one part suffers every part suffers with it, if one part rejoices all rejoice with it.
As Christ's body we now belong to each other, we need to hear this and to think long and hard about how it applies to us in our corporate life together as a church. But more than that, we belong to him, and he loves and serves us, just as we love and look after our own bodies. As our head Jesus: inspires, rules, guides, and sustains us, the body of which he is the head – the mainspring and centre of unity.
This leads to another purpose statement in 2.15-16 'His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.' His point is there are no longer two peoples in the world – the Jews with privileged access to God; and the Gentiles with no access to him. Now in Christ there is one new humanity which is being remade in the likeness of our creator – Jesus Christ. This is not Gentiles made into Jews, but a new group which transcends both, Christ is the representative man for both alike. So the body represents to us the reconciliation that comes in Christ – we are not two, but one body in him, and we are not far away, but we're connected to God himself.
This new humanity seen in another purpose statement we have already seen in Eph 3.6 'This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.' The body now explains our common membership in the benefits of Christ, whose body we are. We join with believing Israel in the benefits of an eternal inheritance, and we share in the New Covenant blessing of the Holy Spirit, a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance.
So the body imagery stresses our common interest in Christ as the one ruler of all things, our common membership in a new humanity that will share in all God's covenant blessings of creation and new creation. And more than that, the body reminds us that Jesus loves and cares for us and provides as he us with all these things – at his own expense.
I mean, think of all the things that we do for our own bodies: the basics of daily life - we eat, sleep and wash. But we do more don't we: Medicines, pampering, diets, clothes, exercise, rest and recovery, holidays in the sunshine, layer up when it's cold, put on the heater … we are ceaselessly taking care of our feeble bodies. Think of the urgency we feel to fix issues affecting our bodies – a stone in our shoe, a tooth ache, a head ache, a pain in our side, hunger pains, thirst, a stubbed toe, something in our eye, not to even mention serious pain or illness … when we're in pain we do something about it quickly. That's because we love and care for our bodies. Even people who abuse their bodies usually do so because their body experiences enjoyment through those things – whether it be over indulging in eat or drink, smoking, risky sex or drugs, dangerous adventures like base jumping… addict's bodies crave the thing that does them damage! But Jesus isn't doesn't need to moderate his desires, he's not short of exercise or indulging in beer – he loves his body and provides richly for our enjoyment, and he knows his body, he gives us just what we need, just when we need it.
How does this help us? Unity is the major focus of the body imagery, and maintaining unity is the overwhelming application – as we have seen from Eph 4.3-16: 'Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit… so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith… we will in all things grow up into him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does it's work.'
We have been joined together – we don't need to achieve unity, but we do need to work to maintain it. Maintaining unity won't happen by accident – but only as God works among us to overcome our natural hostilities and selfishness, and as we submit to his rule and work at maintaining peace and good relationships.
At least one implication must follow – it must be hard for us to leave a church, unless we are moving to another area (and even then, perhaps our ties to our church should give us pause to reconsider if we really need to move at all); how can we leave a body to which we belong, a body on which we depend and which is to an extent dependent on us? Matters of style and even substance need to be held in tension with the issue of identity, we are members of the church to which we belong and therefore essential to it, and it to us!
Another implication is clear – in this body Christ is head, Christ must rule over the heavenly church and over each and every local manifestation of it. We are not free and independent churches, there is no such thing, all churches are members of Christ's body and we are all united, whatever our formal structures. We are not free to decide for ourselves how we will function or what we will believe, Christ sets the agenda and must ever do so. We are always tempted to listen to the world around us and modify the message to please them – many churches do, watch them lining up to endorse Gay Marriage at the moment – but we must listen to Jesus, not the world, and remain rooted in him, lest we lose connection to the head who gives us life.
We are a body, united as one and loved by the Lord because we are his body. That's our first image. The second doesn't immediately sound like it speaks of God's love for us, it is the building image.
The Building (Temple), of which Christ is the Cornerstone
We are the building God is building. That doesn't sound like a super relational category. It's true that the people who build Grand Designs often call them a labour of love. But it's also true that most of them are sold within a few years of building. But this image speaks of God's love for us because of the specific type of building that we are – we are not just any old building, certainly not an office block or a metro mall – we're a temple. The church is nothing less than the dwelling place of God, his home.
This image features throughout the book of revelation – from the letters to the churches at the beginning through to the final chapters where the new Jerusalem is described as the dwelling place of God, there is no temple in that holy city, because the city itself is the temple, the dwelling of God. This metaphor also sees sustained reflection in 1 Peter – we are joined to him and as living stones are being built into a holy temple.
In Ephesians we see it clearly in 2.19ff:
Eph 2.19-22 'Consequently you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow-citizens with God's people and members of God's household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.'
Notice that the 'you' in this sentence is consistently second person plural throughout – he is not saying that each of us independently is being built into a temple (he does say that 1 Cor, but that's not what he's saying here) no, we as a church are being built, we as a whole are being built into the holy temple.
This might not sound like a big deal, but it is. This is nothing less than the reversal of the great curse of the fall – alienation from God. Remember Genesis 3, following the fall Adam and Eve were excluded from God's presence, they were banished from the garden, and measures put in place to keep them out. You could argue that all of the curses of Gen 3 flow from this one fundamental curse – in God's presence all is as it should be, there is peace and harmony and work is joyful and productive. But outside of God's presence order breaks down into chaos; authority becomes beastly and submission gives way to rebellion; relationships are strained by competition for supremacy; and work frustrated by weeds and failure so that it becomes an exhausting chore.
So when God rescues Israel out of Egypt and gathers them at the foot of Mt Sinai to be his people so he can be their God he is promising a reversal of that fundamental curse – God will be with them and be their God, they have been removed from his presence, but he will come to them so they can live in his presence again. That's why God told Moses to make the tabernacle, a kind of portable garden of Eden, a regular repeat of the Mt Sinai gathering. God would dwell with them in the tent, right in the middle of their camp.
We looked at how this is the model church meeting in talk one. But we didn't talk so much about it's limitations. As well as modelling what church is all about it also gives us a graphic illustration of the problem of an unholy people seeking to come into the presence of a holy God:
– firstly they had to be warned not to even set foot on the mountain lest they be struck down (this warning given and then repeated, actually necessitating a trip down the mountain for Moses after he went up to ensure that it was kept),
– secondly they trembled in fear at the sound of God's voice and begged Moses to ask God to stop speaking to them lest they die, and
– thirdly whilst Moses remained atop the mountain receiving from God the terms of the covenant the people went spectacularly astray. They made golden calves which they worshipped as Yahweh saying this is Yahweh who brought you out of Egypt!
So Mt Sinai also exposes the truth that without forgiveness through Jesus, and the transformation that comes through the Holy Spirit, it is impossible for people to come near to God. This is why even in the tabernacle God's presence rested on the atonement cover on top of the ark of the covenant – the agreement between God and his people had to be written in blood and rested on the act of atonement by which a guilty people were cleansed of the guilty stain of sin.
So sin limited intimacy with God, and yet God did go with them, in the Tabernacle. The tabernacle was modelled on God's throne room in heaven, symbolising not just God's presence among his people, but also his rule, his protection, his guidance, his blessing, his power among them (as someone has said, like housing a nuclear reactor at the centre of the camp!). When they arrived in the promised land the portable tabernacle was eventually replaced by the permanent temple. When they were consecrated both tabernacle and temple were filled with Smoke as the glory of the Lord descended on them, God saying that he really would dwell among them. But such was their rebellion against God that Ezekiel saw a vision of the glory of the Lord leaving the temple before God's people were sent into exile.
So the promise of the tabernacle and the temple gave way to yet more disappointment – just as in the garden of Eden sin ruined intimacy with God, they were excluded once again. But the promise wasn't dead. Ezekiel saw a new vision – a vision of a new temple filled with God's glory, and overflowing with rivers of blessing flowing out to the nations.
All of this was looking forward to Jesus – Jesus who was God tabernacled among us (John 1.14), Jesus whose body was the temple of the Lord – destroyed by men, but raised up again by God three days later (John 2.19). And Jesus who now makes his home in each and every one of his people by his Spirit, so that we become temples of the Lord (1 Cor 3.16,17, 6.19). And whenever two or three are gathered in the name of Christ, there he is among us (matt 18.20). The tabernacle and the temple promised intimacy with God. Now, in Jesus we are as close to God as we can be, he in us and we in him! More than that, as we've seen, when we meet together we meet, not in the earthly tent or temple, not the copy of God's throne room – but we meet with the gathered saints around God's actual throne in heaven.
Consider then the immense blessing it is for us to meet as God's people – we meet in the very presence of God himself, in his throne room where he exercises his rule over all creation no less. And we do not come into his presence as lowly servants, but as sons!
This is the significance of the mention of God's household here – we are members of God's household, not as servants or hangers on, but as sons, as heirs with Christ of all that belongs to God. The church is the very household of God, his family by adoption as his sons in Jesus Christ. We stand to share in Jesus' own inheritance, and we are loved, disciplined, protected and provided for by our heavenly father. We have constant access to him in prayer, by the spirit of sonship in us by which we cry out 'Abba, Father' (Rom 8.15). Jesus is our older brother and example, bringing many brothers to glory, and we are to treat each other as brother and sister, with absolute purity, and the younger to treat the older with respect as if mothers and fathers.
All of this is summed up in the image of us as the temple, the building that God is building with Jesus Christ as the corner stone. God has brought us close to him, given us access, intimacy – because he loves us.
And how does this influence our behaviour when we meet? The focus of the building imagery is holiness – we are God's holy temple, set apart for him and holy to the Lord, to be his dwelling place, the seat of his holy throne. Richard Coekin says: 'Holiness is the unique, lovely, transcendent, moral purity of God's divine character'. We are described in these verses in Ephesians as a building rising to become a holy temple in the Lord (2.21). We are decisively made holy by trusting in Jesus and being joined to him (sharing his righteousness as per swap of 2 Cor 5.21); and we are being progressively changed, transformed into ever increasing holiness in the image of Christ our creator. We are undergoing renovation on an 'extreme makeover' scale –completely gutted and rebuilt. This moral transformation happens through the Spirit and the Word, as the Spirit applies the Word to our hearts, bringing conviction of sin and righteousness. God lives in us by his Spirit, the Spirit of holiness. When God lives in us he does not leave us as he finds us, but works in us to make us progressively more what we should be.
This means that one of our primary concerns as a church is holiness – we meet around God's word not just for information – as if God's word were a text book and the Christian life an extended education – no we read the bible for information in order that it will lead to transformation. Transformation follows from relationship – want to know Jesus better and love him more; but it goes both ways – transformation is also required for us to grow closer to Jesus – we will not know Jesus better if we are not growing in holiness; it is by walking in his footsteps that we will grow in relationship with him. That includes resisting temptation as he did, undergoing persecution and rejection as he did, and communing with his Father as he did – Without holiness no one will see the Lord.
So along with Growth strategies we need holiness strategies (discipleship?), pray for change, work at it, encourage each other – remember Jesus gives Apostles and prophets and teachers etc. to prepare God's people for works of service so that the body is built up and we all reach maturity, this is not just in knowledge (so that we are not tossed by every wind and wave of teaching) but also in living, so that our lives are solidly grounded in the truth.
So the church is Jesus body – loved by him, protected and provided for by him. And the church is God's Grand Design, a magnificent temple in which he lives and by which we enjoy incredible intimacy with him. If these images speak of love and intimacy, how much more our third and final image of the church:
Church is the Bride of which Christ is the Husband
This is the heart of the extended discussion of wives and husbands in Eph 5.22ff 'Wives submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church, for we are all members of his body. "For this reason a man will leave his Father and Mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh". This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the Church. However, each one of you must also love his wife as he loves himself and the wife must respect her husband'. (Eph 5.22-33)
Human covenant relationship of marriage is a gift from God to help us to understand the passionate relationship that God has with his church. This is, of course the fundamental reason that marriage, as given by God, can never be modified to accommodate a gay couple, it is given by God for a man and a woman to come together, exclusively and permanently, and it serves not just to cement our society together, but also to point us to God and to illustrate his love for us. Three aspects of that relationship that Paul emphasises here:
Christ Loves the Church- Jesus love for us is beyond question, his love for us is greater than even his love for himself, so much so that he sacrificed himself to make us – his church – holy. He loves us (us!) with a greater selfless devotion that the most devoted new husband!
Christ provides what we need: he feeds and cares for us as attentively as we do to our own bodies. Here we see how these images overlap – just as the husband and wife become one flesh so we have been united to Jesus to share in him. And as our husband Jesus meets our every need. His provision is so complete and wonderful it also gives rise to many other images – He is the shepherd who cares for his flock, the Father who gives good gifts to his children, the hen who nurtures her flock under wings and so on.
Christ is united intimately with us: He is one with us, we are 'in him' and he is 'in us' through his spirit. Where we go, there he is, and where he is, there we are (remember how we are seated with him now in the heavenly realms, with all the saints). The union of a man and his wife – spiritually, emotionally and sexually (all that I have I give to you) is given to help us to understand how close Jesus has brought himself to us. All that he has he shares with us, all that he is, he gives to us. Remember this is God the Son we are talking about, and he gives himself to us completely, as a husband gives himself to his wife.
So we are left in no doubt whatsoever. Does God love his church? Yes, undoubtedly so. This is a beautiful image of God's dedication to us, his delight in us, his provision and care over us. God's love for us is wonderful.
So how do we respond to his love? Well the emphasis of the marriage analogy is clear. We learn submission, all of us, just as the wife is to submit herself to her husband. He is our head, our ruler, our Lord, our King, our Father, our Husband – all of these images speak of our submission to him and his governance or rule over us. We hate submission – but that's because we are fallen, rebellion is the opposite of submission, self governance the ideal of fallen men and women. But it is no bad thing to submit to a sovereign like this, who serves us for our own good at his own expense. We often find submission unpalatable, we do not want to bend the knee to him and do as we are told – we forget that he is loving and gracious and kind and imagine (with Satan) that he is unfairly withholding good things from us and so want to pull away from his loving rule; that is sin alive and at work in us. But we must learn to recognise where that desire comes from and to resist it, and together as a church we need to help each other to learn to submit to his rule whose service is perfect freedom.
These three images – the body, the temple and the bride – focus our attention as a church, not on ourselves, but on him who brought us for himself and made us his own so that he could dwell in us as his people, the one who gathers us together in the first place, the one in whom we have unity as one body and rise to form a holy building which is adorned beautifully as a bride for it's husband. Christ creates, grows and governs the church, it is his body, his temple, his bride. And Christ loves his people and gives himself up for them.
What do we conclude then? The church is glorious far out of keeping with what it appears to be, because of it's glorious Lord. It is nothing less than the body of the Lord, the focus of his blessing and the arena of his great plans and purposes. It was for the church that the whole creation came into being, and for the church that Christ gave himself, and for the church that Christ has been made the first born from among the dead, so that he could constitute in himself a new humanity, no longer mired in sin and excluded from fellowship with God, but made new, holy and fit to be his body, his dwelling place, in fact the very bride of Christ. All creation looks to us – not just the forests and the hills, not just the planets and the stars, but even the heavenly beings themselves – every power and principality, every angel and every demon will look on the church and see the very glory of God in his kindness to us, his riches of mercy, his abundance of power to rescue us, his wisdom and his love. How can we know God and what he is like? In heaven for all eternity we will stand as testimony to his grace, love, power, kindness, mercy, wisdom and love; what is God like? He is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who gathers the flock he loves to feed, the God who redeems us for himself, who gives up his only son so that we could be washed clean, who in Jesus gives up the privileges of Godhead to become lowly and meek, to be rejected and despised and unjustly slaughtered, and all so that his enemies may go free from the judgment they have brought on themselves. He loves us as his body, he builds us into a temple fit for him to live in, and he loves and cares for us as his bride, his beloved. He is the God whose generosity is far beyond extraordinary, whose wisdom no one can fathom, whose power knows no bounds. He is our God and we are his people. And ultimately that is the glory of the church – to belong to a God such as this!